Friday, January 13, 2023
The AALS Section on Academic Support kicked off 2023 with a bang! They hosted a phenomenal panel at AALS on Friday, January 6th! The panel was called “Proactive Planning Across the Curriculum for the NextGen Bar Exam “and panelists were:
*Dustin Benham, Charles P. Bubany Endowed Professor of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law
*Brian Gallini, Dean, Willamette University College of Law
*Moderator Kirsha Trychta, Teaching Professor and Director of the Academic Excellence Center, West Virginia University School of Law
It was a great discussion, and so well attended! I want to try my best to highlight some key points and do justice to all of the amazing points the speakers made.
First, the main source of anxiety for many in the academy, but especially those that deal with Academic Support, is the timing of the NextGen Bar Exam. The NCBE, during AALS, has confirmed that it will be rolled out in 2026, with 100% certainty - that is from their mouth. However, jurisdictions need to adopt the NextGen bar, and as of yet, we haven’t had any jurisdictions announce whether they are adopting it, and if so, when. In addition, the NCBE will still be supporting the UBE for states that want it, for at least 3 years, potentially more. This means that anyone that works with students on the bar exam is struggling to figure out the NextGen, while still prepping for the UBE. Given the significant differences between the two exams, this is a monumental task. It has also been brought up that, like with so many things, the bulk of this work falls onto the shoulders of academic support professionals – shoulders that are already weighted down.
Toni also brought up the fact that it seems Supreme Courts don’t always understand law school timing, since it’s not what they are working in day in and day out. Specifically, if you are at a school with a part time program, the students that will be taking the 2026 exam are already admitted. Their first year is complete, and we are at the point where it’s incredibly difficult to alter their 2nd year. So now bar support educators have to be creative on the back end as to how to integrate next gen bar skills, specifically experiential learning and skills, into the curriculum, and potentially while also running classes for the UBE. Toni also mentioned that this is an opportunity to advocate with the state Supreme Courts and bar examiners. They don’t understand the challenges that schools are facing, so we need to educate them.
Dustin added that if jurisdictions aren’t clear on timing we still need to incorporate skills into doctrinal classes. He stressed that it’s what we should be doing anyway, and that we can and SHOULD do that in doctrinal classes, regardless of whether there is a next gen bar or when it’s rolled out. He said “we are preparing them for the next gen bar, current bar, and to practice if we incorporate skills into doctrinal classes.” He continued on to say that “I’m teaching students to practice law, not pass the bar, but to practice, they need to pass the bar, so I try to teach both, and both can be taught.”
Convos with Faculty
Another big topic, and concern, with the NextGen Bar Exam is how do we have conversations with faculty that are less open to change? Toni suggested that it’s important to have early conversations, but faculty like examples, and we don’t have them yet. This can lead to frustrations for everyone. She also added that we really need leadership from the top down, for the Deans to incentivize. Typically research is a priority for faculty, so deans need to lead that change, and prioritize the changes made to curriculum, potentially shifting the use of research grants.
Brian added that in reality the bigger picture is about faculty hiring. Specifically, how we think about faculty policies and equity, as well as tenure. Brian has offered faculty innovation grants at his school. These are designed to help, and encourage, faculty to create courses or change a course. He says that the real way to break down silos is to change the way we think about tenure, and now is the time to have that conversation. This was definitely a theme of the panel, and it seems all are in agreement that we must change the way we think about not only tenure, but evaluating faculty and training faculty. Toni commented that there must be training on teaching, and Dustin specifically commented that we “must hire those capable of practicing law.” Krisha added that her school had done a teaching review , so they are not just relying on student evaluations. The teaching review includes a review of the syllabis, classroom observation, student evaluations and finally a “teaching agenda.”
Dustin added that we also need to educate faculty, especially junior faculty, regarding textbook selection. Specifically because a traditional casebook makes it difficult to teach a problem-based curriculum, which can be the best way to incorporate skills into a doctrinal class. He says that there are textbooks out there that make this easier, but we need to incentivize faculty to change their syllabus and educate new faculty about textbook options. Essentially book selection is key because it drives the format of the course.
Toni also stressed the importance of getting rid of silos between educators; academic support, clinicians, legal writing, and doctrine. We have to “de-silo”, and recognize that ASP and clinics don’t get research grants and stipends. Also, the work HAS to be collaborative, and it HAS to be the dean incentivizing the change.
Kirsha mentioned that she never asks the faculty to DO anything, she merely shares information. and that she’s been intentional about what she shares and present depending on who is coming. In short, it’s an “ask” without asking, and the faculty response has been great.
Kris Franklin, and audience member, reminded everyone that “no one is a prophet in their own land, no one is listened to by their own faculty, that’s why we bring in each other” – and we need to remind the faculty that academic support, skills faculty and clinicians are experts in student learning.
To add to this, Brian mentioned that he has launched a faculty and development series as a low stakes discussion about teaching, and bringing in conversations about improving teaching. Toni agreed that we have these existing structures, for workshopping research, so we need to flip that to workshop teaching exercises.
Of course, the panelists offered concrete takeaways that could offer change. Dustin suggested that faculty integrate small exercises, and added that evidence is a great way to do this. He teaches evidence by having students act as attorneys and judge, and requests that they argue whether evidence should come in or not, as if it was a courtroom. He can get through 10-15 pieces of evidence a class, and finds that this increases engagement while teaching skills.
Dustin does something similar while teaching professional responsibility, and has students write client letters. He also has them flip their position frequently, to stay nimble, and gives them a “sample” client letter to keep for practice. Finally, he suggests embracing technology, and embracing using smart phones. He argues that students are going to use them, or think about them, no matter what, so we might as well embrace it and use it!
Brian suggests advocating with bar examiners, faculty policies and hiring, and incentivizing faculty.
Toni reminds those that are “Asp-ish” to set firm boundaries with faculty. She says that she is already seeing the “turning of the heads to ASP as “how do we do this” – and while it’s nice when we are recognized as experts, we need to provide resources without doing the work for them. She suggests hat struggling students often struggle because of the case method. They need a connection to reality, and work better with problem sets and simulations. So, we can share materials with faculty, but “be a resource without providing the answer.”
Kirsha also mentioned that Kirsha – can create 1-2 hypos, exercises, and use them across the board on 1L classes, let students see how this plays out in reality- how the same problem can play out in different ways.
Finally, in true ASP-ish fashion, Kirsha left us with her “Takeaway Agenda” for the NextGen Bar:
- Begin an education campaign – faculty/boards
- Remain positive – this is an opportunity, be that energy
- This can be anchored outside the bar – assessment and ABA compliance, for example – the goal is to improve student outcomes
- Bring in outsiders
Personally, I feel, as usual with academic support, the panel gave the audience concrete action items, both “easy” and more long term, as well as thoughtful considerations. I would like to add that our very own Cassie Christopher got a shout out from Dustin on her scholarship, which is fantastic.
The central theme, which seems to be a leading theme throughout academic support lately (and for good reason) is breaking down silos to rethink tenue, evaluation, and status. This not only benefits professionals, but students as well. And as Toni reminds us, we need to have conversations about compensating those that prepare students for multiple different bars, because that can be incredibly challenging.
-Melissa A. Hale
As a quick update, Sophie Martin from the NCBE reached out and asked for this clarification: : In addition, the NCBE will still be supporting the UBE for states that want it, for at least 3 administrations